When Maureen Majury set out four years ago to find existing degree programs in robotics, she came across one at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, another in the Netherlands, and not many others.
The proliferation of jobs in software engineering, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics in the Puget Sound region, however, pushed Majury, the director of the Center of Excellence for Information & Computing Technology, to create a similar offering closer to home.
“Job demand in the state (is) enormous, especially in the King County metro area,” Majury explained. “It would behoove Washington state to look at one of the community or technical colleges to be the first in the state to offer an associate degree … in robotics and Artificial Intelligence, focusing on the software side.”
The Center of Excellence serves Information Technology programs at two-year schools across the state, but is headquartered at Bellevue College, and its leaders jumped at the opportunity to offer the degree first.
With that green light, Majury developed a curriculum that led to an introduction to robotics and AI course in spring 2017. An inaugural class of students began a new, two-year associate degree program in robotics and Artificial Intelligence at Bellevue College this fall. Advanced, specialized courses will be offered next school year.
Given the dearth of existing and similar programs, Majury had relatively few places to turn when designing the course content. Still, she credited Carnegie Mellon’s curriculum as a guide. Besides, there’s an upside to introducing a groundbreaking program.
“It’s kind of a natural segue for students who already are interested in Information Technology,” she said. “It’s exciting because it’s something new, and as we know, many companies and organizations are doing a lot of experiments with robotics and AI. … It’s just a fascinating, emerging, and disrupting technology to embrace.”
Graduates will be well-versed in every corner of the field. Machine learning work will allow students to translate programming knowledge to machines. Familiarity with mechatronic design means students will understand how robots move and function. Speech technology and predictive analytics also play major roles in the coursework.
The curriculum also requires basic work in statistics, engineering graphics, and computer vision. The broad, introductory courses, which will comprise most of the first year of the program, mean graduates can swiftly join the workforce, even if they sour on robotics or Artificial Intelligence.
“They would definitely be able to get a job in software development, no matter what the area,” Majury said. “That’s the purpose of the degree.”
For those who remain interested in these new technologies, Majury said employers desperate for workers will see the associate degree in robotics and Artificial Intelligence as virtually equal to a bachelor’s degree in another field. Though an applied bachelor’s degree in the same fields is a possibility for the future at Bellevue College, current students don’t necessarily need to wait for that option to enter the workforce.
“The four-year proposed, in-development bachelor’s (degree program) is plugging its way through the system,” Majury added. “(But) because there are so many internships and entry-level positions, I think like many new, disruptive technologies, companies would, with this skill set, go ahead and hire somebody with an associate (degree). They’re just grasping for people to enter this particular area.”
Likewise, students are in some cases grasping for the skills. Majury recounted one student she advised, talking him through the required courses, technical knowledge he would gain, and other details. He did not fit the standard model for a student in an associate degree program, either a recent high school graduate or full-time worker looking for some higher education.
This student already held a bachelor’s degree. And Majury pointed to that demographic as a target for the program, since it offers more specific technical skills than the abstract courses of study at other universities.
Down the road, students may have other options for gaining those skills. The curriculum Majury developed is available to every community and technical college in the state; she said she’s in discussions with another educational institution to add a certificate or degree program.
For now, Bellevue is the hotbed for robotics and Artificial Intelligence education in the state. It’s a natural one, given the city’s proximity to countless tech companies on the Eastside and in Seattle, the support of college faculty, and its well-established business and information technology institute.
For Majury and school leaders, it just made perfect sense.
“Typically, robotics and Artificial Intelligence, at this early stage, (are) … mostly offered at the master’s level, or as part of a computer science area of specialization,” she added. “I think there’s enough demand. Why can’t we offer it to students in an applied fashion?”